Is self-learning something that can be taught in schools?

Can we cultivate self-learning in schools? Can schools teach kids to develop a strong interest in learning, and recognize that learning is essentially their own responsibility. Can we do things differently and nurture a pleasure in learning all life long.

I suggested, in an earlier post, a model of schools where teachers would be paid more, but would have to handle more students. They have to be able and, unlike many  present day school teachers, motivated, to make their learners become independent of them.

Not surprisingly the reaction of teachers to the idea of greatly reduced class time, and a greater emphasis on reading and self-study, is that kids will not learn if the teacher does not teach them, and in a classroom. But what is the evidence of that? What is the point of comparison?

What are kids learning in school today? Look at the drop out rate. Look at the rate of functional illiteracy. Many who do graduate, have poor knowledge of history, maths, science, and languages that were taught at them in school. Despite massive investment, as much as  $20 thousand per year per child in the US, the results are pathetic. So what have we got to lose?

Now, we saw in a previous post, that a group of 8-11 year old kids in New Brunswick, who were allowed to listen and read in a second language, with no formal intervention from a teacher, outperformed kids in a traditional language classroom.

Why not apply that to all subjects? Let kids read in class, and outside the class. Measure their activity level, like we do at LingQ. Their only responsibility of the learners would be to stay active. This is the key measurable, not passing arbitrary tests. Statistics and portfolios can be maintained on every subject.

Human and face to face interaction can be organized in different ways, not just in the classroom as is the case today. Let learners of different ages interact,  in classrooms, in small discussion groups, in large lecture halls where learners can comment and questions on Twitter. There can be sessions on skype at times convenient to learners and tutors or even older buddies. There can be writing for correction and to obtain advice from tutors and other ( older) learners via the Internet.

I do not have a answers with regard to all possible forms of interaction and individual and community learning that can take place. I am only asking questions.


English cultural pollution.

One of the most pleasing things about visiting a country used to be the chance to hear the local music, in bars, restaurants and elsewhere. This was part of the flavour of the country, like the language, the food, the countryside. Now this has been obliterated by the same monotonous music that I am forced to listen to at home, all sung in English.

International conferences in English, whether in Germany, Portugal or Italy, and now the music has been obliterated.

It is time to fight this pollution!

5 ways to learn to notice a new language

Good language learners notice what is happening in a language. They notice the sounds of the language, and the structure and the vocabulary. They notice as they listen and read. They notice when they use the language. How can we train ourselves in the ability to notice, in order to become good language learners?

Language teaching methods too often try to force learners to notice based on explanations of grammar, drills, and other exercizes and class activities. I find these approaches intrusive and stressful. I do not easily understand many of the explanations, find it difficult to remember rules and tables, and do not like to have to reproduce all of this in drills, tests, or “role-playing” or “task-based” exercizes imposed in class.

I find it more enjoyable to learn by listening and reading and using the language when I feel like it. Here are some ideas on things that can help us notice, while just doing what we like to do in the language we are learning.

1) Repetitive listening:

Listen to content of interest more than once. When I start in a language I can listen to the same content ten or more times, since there are always bits and pieces that I just do not get, despite having read the text, and looked up all the words. The effort to try to “get” these fuzzy parts, keeps me focused and trying to notice. I gradually notice the fuzzy parts, and also reinforce the parts that I already understood. I notice more and more clearly.

2) Fast and slow:

Listen to content at normal speed, and then listen again to a slowed down version. Either the content has been recorded twice, once at normal speed, and once slowly, or you can use Audacity or some similar audio management system to slow things down. You will notice much more when you listen the second time, to the slower version.

3) Points of view listening:

We are experimenting at LingQ with creating a series of lessons that are similar  in content with one element changed each time. This could be the tense,  or the use of pronouns, or other structural aspects that cause trouble. Listening to similar content over and over, will reinforce the elements you already are familiar with, while you focus on the specific elements that have changed.

4) Use the language:

Using the language is a great way to notice. When you write or speak, even if you are not corrected, you tend to notice where your gaps and problems are.  Of course, having your errors pointed out can also help you notice. This is helpful as long as we don’t expect the corrections to actually correct us. They will only help us notice.

5) Mark up your books:

I am so used to creating LingQs and seeing highlighted in my reading, I now tend to mark up books and newspapers when reading. The action of underlining words, phrases, word endings, etc.helps me notice. I then go back and review the chapter that I just finished, going over what I have underlined, and occasionally adding some of these words and phrases to my vocabulary in LingQ.

With enough noticing, the brain will start to form new patterns for the language, and our performance and understanding will improve.

Try these things to improve your ability to notice, and your ability to learn languages.

Language is a habit. To change a habit we need to notice it.

Language is a behavioural habit. Learning another language is  like learning some of the behavioural habits of another culture. If you do not notice these habits you cannot learn them or acquire them.

If you talk too loud, or always eat with your mouth open, the first step towards changing this habit, is to notice that you behave this way, and that others behave differently.

Even the first time it is pointed out, may not be enough to get you to notice it that you do it, let alone change it. You will probably continue speaking too loudly or eating with your mouth open. However, as you start to notice that you do this, you can in time train yourself to change your habit.

Language learning is a little like that. You need to notice what is happening in a new language, in order to acquire these new language habits, assuming you want to.

In my ideal school I would increase teachers’ salaries – a dream?

I would offer higher salaries than what teachers are getting in the public school system, but would hire only the most outstanding teachers. And they would have to perform or they would be gone. They should be enthusiastic, creative and models for the students. ( I think about 20% of present public school teachers might meet this standard. Teachers would have to be recruited from elsewhere enticed by better salaries).

I would then organize class time in such a way that kids would not automatically spend day after day in a class room with their peers. There would be a greater variety of learning activities, ranging from lectures, to video, to group and individual learning activities focusing on reading, computer based learning, (including LingQof course), more music, sports.

It would be up to these super teachers to figure out how to best organize these activities so that all students achieve the best results they can, and remain focused.

Teacher performance would be based on their ability to get their students to become enthusiastic about learning and spend the necessary time on meaningful learning activites, as independent learners.

The objective would be to induce the students to do more on their own, thus making it possible for a much higher student to teacher ration than in the public system.

High-powered enthusiastic teachers, independent learners, is this possible? Maybe I am just dreaming, again.

You can only learn what you already know (Sufi saying)

This is one of my favourite bits of wisdom, when it comes to language learning. That is why I prefer a lot of input before trying to learn any grammar. But it does not only apply to language learning. I am visiting Italy, Lucca to be exact. I was given a map of the city. It was basically useless to me.

Now after a day of wandering around this old city, exploring fascinating old streets and noticing cathedrals, piazzas and towers,  the map is a lot clearer and more useful.

Once you have been around a new language for a while,  listening to people converse, or reading articles and stories of interest, noticing words and phrases, the grammar explanations start to make sense, not before, at least for me.


Minority languages and the rights of Tibetans to preserve their language.

China is imposing Chinese as the main language of instruction in areas of the country which are majority Tibetan, and are even designated as “Autonomous” regions. This has sparked some protests within China according to this article.

I was just in the more genuinely “autonomous” region of Catalunya, where all school instruction is in Catalan, including for people who move there from Spanish speaking parts of Spain. In Quebec, schooling is in French although a publicly funded English school system serves the established English minority, although newcomers may only study in French in the public system. In largely francophone areas of the adjacent provinces of Ontario and New Brunswick, there are also large public school systems in the minority language. French public schools are supported elsewhere in the country, with less success (or justification in my view).

If a language is not the main language of instruction at school it tends to weaken. Some minorities in China, like the Manchus, have lost their language, and with that a large part of their identity. This is also a problem with most first nations groups in Canada, or the Maoris in New Zealand.

I support the rights of minority people, ( I do not mean immigrants, but long established national groups), to have instruction in their own language, where the numbers justify it. A good example would be the Tibetan speaking parts of China. Could it be that China wants to assimilate these people?

Here is an interesting article on minorities in China from the Asia Society, and one on the problems of the Maori language in New Zealand.